Saturday, July 08, 2006

Fish out of Water: Are we doomed?

Here’s an interesting post on Majikthise:
Suppose that the State of Texas passed a law to make truly massive Enron-level corporate fraud punishable by death. Could that law be constitutional? Or would executing property criminals be considered cruel and unusual punishment?

Executing Enron executives may sound extreme, but lets consider for a moment the true scale of the wrongdoing by Ken Lay and his cronies at Enron. I would argue that if you support the death penalty at all, you should support capital punishment for the top-level Enron execs.
This post touches on an interesting issue that several commenters to this post mention: although our visceral reaction to a crime like murder maybe greater than to a “white collar” crime of the type committed by Enron executives, the actual net harm inflicted on society by an individual corporate crime might be greater than that inflicted by an individual violent crime.

This is an example of one of my favorite theses, the “fish out of water” thesis. Basically, this thesis states that our instincts and visceral emotions, our “gut sense” if you will, evolved in the ancestral condition (small tribes of hunter-gatherers). The modern condition differs from the ancestral condition in many ways, particularly in the number of people one needs to take into account: It’s astronomically greater now. As a consequence, many of our “instincts” are now useless, counterproductive, or easily manipulated to our detriment. Indeed, one could look at the entire project of civilization: laws, social customs, norms, religions, institutions, etc., as an attempt to correct, extend, or adapt our natural instincts to the modern condition (or to manipulate those instincts for selfish gain).

In the Enron case discussed above, we “instinctually” know that a violent crime like murder is worse than a financial crime, like manipulating energy markets and committing corporate fraud on a massive scale. But because the number of people affected by an artificially caused blackout or pension fund evaporation is so great, far beyond the ability of our tribal minds to really grasp, the actual harm to society from the financial crime is probably far greater than our “gut” tells us it is. So such crimes are punished much more lightly in proportion to the harm they inflict, because our punishment system is driven by gut-level thinking.

Fortunately, there is a powerful force counteracting these old ancestral instincts: competition. Societies that are better able to adapt to the modern condition become much more powerful than societies that do not. And our instincts that push us towards power and success may enable us to overcome our “obsolete” instincts that hinder us in the modern world.

But this might lead to a sad paradox: it could be that the modern societies that thrive most will be the ones that most drastically override our human instincts. In other words, we will have to essentially declare war on human nature in order to get head as a group. Could the origins of puritanism lie somewhere in this attempt to corral tribal humans into a more modern world? (In my opinion, puritanism is a bad solution, but it may represent some kind of “local maximum” in society solution-space.)

If the fish out of water thesis is true, then dystopia is inevitable: only by smashing what is truly human within us can modern society achieve optimum functioning. Why would any society do this? Because of the fear that some other society will do it first, and gain an advantage. Because my dystopians will kick your utopians’ asses. If I recall my anthropology correctly, this is what happened in the transition from hunting and gathering to farming. (I’m going out on a limb a bit here, so corrections and helpful citations would be most welcome) By most accounts, farmers were much more miserable than hunter-gatherers: they had shorter life expectancies, more diseases, and less leisure. So why bother with agriculture at all? Because in conflicts between farmers and hunter-gatherers, the farmers kick the hunter-gatherers’ butts. The farmers can support far more people on the same amount of land, and the conditions of farming lead to all sorts of other technological and societal developments that might not enable you to be happy, but do enable you to kill off your enemies with greater efficiency.

I guess this is just a round about way of saying that what makes us powerful is not the same thing as what makes us happy. But being rendered powerless relative to neighboring societies is not going to make you happy either. So are we doomed to make ourselves miserable in our quest to avoid powerlessness? I don’t know.

Here’s a solution: genetically engineer humans so that they are truly, spiritually happy in modern conditions. Or use drugs or other artificial enhancements to compensate for the unhappiness modern society necessitates…oh wait, someone already invented beer and video games. Maybe instead I could write a book a society where these solutions are implemented in a really powerful and systematic way…oh wait, someone already wrote Brave New World.

OK, this post is getting a little college-dorm-2-am-philosophy session-like. But I think blogging is a decent replacement for that bygone pastime, especially with my small group of thoughtful and articulate readers chiming in.

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